Aug 28 2017

Back to Bellbird

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One of the most successful radio serials in Australia was ABC‘s Blue Hills. The daily 15-minute depiction of life in the fictitious country town of Tanimbla had an incredibly loyal following from the time it debuted in 1949.

With television starting in 1956, it was only a matter of time before a similar concept was to be adopted by the new medium. It was to happen in 1967, when ABC announced plans to produce its first television serial, Bellbird.

It was Australia’s first prime time soap — following some short-lived attempts at daytime serials from the Seven Network.

ABC had hired Sydney author Barbara Vernon (pictured) to write the scripts for the show’s four 15-minute pilot episodes, which went into production in March 1967. “We won’t be emphasising the seamy side of life,” she told TV Times. “But neither will we be frightened of using human situations which always have that element of shock. We have tried not to make Bellbird too sentimental or melodramatic but have continually striven for reality. There has never been a TV series based on a rural Australian town so we were starting from scratch.”

Vernon was later joined by Alan Hopgood, Jeff Underhill and Michael Wright. Hopgood, an accomplished playwright, was to eventually also star in the series.

The series was based around the fictional country town of Bellbird. Early location filming to set the scene for Bellbird was conducted in the real-life town of Daylesford and at Eltham in Melbourne’s outer north, with an old house in the beach side Melbourne suburb of Brighton also used for outdoor filming.

Despite its Victorian backdrop, Bellbird was not intended to depict any particular state. “We chose the name Bellbird because we understood that there was a town called Bellbird in every State in Australia,” Vernon told TV Times. “We were also very conscious about keeping the setting neutral. We made a great effort to keep State references out. For instance, we always referred to “the city”, rather than to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. However, production began in the ABC studios in Melbourne. This was because they happened to be available. Sydney had a full schedule. So when there were cars they had Victorian registration, the trains were obviously Victorian, and it pretty soon became obvious that Bellbird was a Victorian town. This hadn’t been intended.”

Among Bellbird‘s original cast were Bruce Barry (then appearing on stage in the production of Funny Girl and also featuring in a series of cigarette commercials), Elspeth Ballantyne, Robin Ramsay and his American wife Barbara, Brigid Lenihan (who had to withdraw from the series after making the pilot), Lynette Curran, Anne Lucas, Raymond Westwell, Clive Winmill, Sydney Conabere and Joan McArthur.

Bellbird made its debut at 6.40pm on Monday 28 August 1967. The opening episode featured city schoolteacher Michael Foley (Barry) taking up a posting in Bellbird. Foley’s arrival prompts gossip when it becomes known that he is to board with the town librarian, the young and single Lori Chandler (Ballantyne).

Less than two months into Bellbird‘s second season, the character of real estate agent Charles Cousens (Robin Ramsay, pictured) was to be written out. Ramsay had accepted an offer to play Fagin in a Japanese stage production of the musical Oliver!

While news of Cousens’ tragic accident was to be a guarded secret, Ramsay accidentally let it slip when talking to a reporter upon his arrival in Japan — not expecting the news to get back to Australia. Because the news was now out, TV Times ended up running a “spoiler” that Cousens was to meet an untimely end, but gave no indication as to how.

The following week fans watched in horror as Cousens fell to his death from atop a wheat silo. The tragic exit sparked an incredible reaction from viewers — with ABC switchboards inundated with phone calls and letters from upset fans. One Perth viewer threatened to come to Melbourne, where the show is made, to “do something about it”.

Lynette Curran, who played Rhoda in the series, found that a storekeeper refused to offer her service in protest at the shock exit of Cousens.

The death of Charles Cousens was to be the one single storyline that would come to be the show’s most memorable.

YouTube: TelevisionAU

Bellbird continued in its 15-minute episode format for most of its run — although viewers constantly bemoaned the limited airtime. Its unusual timeslot, 6.40pm, made it a difficult sell to capital city viewers, but in the country it was a popular ritual to watch Bellbird leading up to the ABC news at 7.00pm.

By the end of 1975, Bellbird was reported to be on its last legs. Writers had simply run out of storylines for the close knit community, apparently.

Despite the rumours, ABC kept the show going into 1976 but in a new format — one 60-minute episode a week instead of the traditional four 15-minute episodes. This was not well received by fans and by the end of the year ABC decided to expand the series to three half-hour episodes a week.

This expansion to the show’s output was seen as a positive investment in the series by the broadcaster but it was to be short-lived. The radio serial Blue Hills had come to an end in 1976. As past and present cast of Bellbird were celebrating their show’s 10th anniversary in September 1977, they were to learn that ABC had dropped the series. Production was to wind up in November with the last episodes going to air before the end of the year. Cast members who only 12 months earlier had spoken lovingly of Bellbird for providing them a level of job security were suddenly about to be unemployed.

To its credit, at the time no other serial drama in Australia had managed the longevity of Bellbird. Commercial network success stories such as Number 96 and The Box coincidentally were also coming to an end during 1977 after six and four years respectively,.

“Ten years is a good run for a show and I suppose we have got to cop it sweet,” Maurie Fields, who played town nasty John Quinney in the series for much of its run, told TV Times at the time. “They claim it didn’t rate in the city but I’ve just returned from Proserpine, where about 90 percent of people are Bellbird fans and I can say it’s still as strong as ever in the country.”

With Bellbird finished up by the end of 1977, ABC had announced a range of new titles for the year ahead: Twenty Good Years, the story of a Melbourne family spanning two decades from 1956; All The Green Year, based on the novel by author Don Charlwood; a children’s series, Nargun And The Stars; and The Truckies, starring Michael Aitken, John Wood, Colleen Hewett and Michael Carman.

Bellbird remains to this day the ABC’s longest-running drama series, having clocked up almost 1700 episodes over a ten year run. James Davern, a former Bellbird producer who ironically was later part of the ABC management that axed the show, years later went on to develop and produce Australia’s next successful rural-based soap, A Country Practice, that ran for 12 years across the Seven and Ten networks.

Source: TV Times, 1 March 1967, 15 March 1967, 5 April 1967. 5 July 1967, 23 August 1967, 10 February 1968, 30 March 1968, 22 May 1968, 12 June 1968, 22 April 1970, 11 December 1976. 24 September 1977, 1 October 1977. TV Week, 30 August 1969, 14 November 1970, 5 May 1973. Listener In-TV, 11 October 1975.



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Aug 26 2017

Obituary: Drew Morphett

Sports broadcaster Drew Morphett has died suddenly at the age of 69.

He was found by wife Karen at their Pakenham home late Friday night.

Born Andrew Kenneth Morphett in Sydney, he began his media career at ABC radio in 1966. After a stint in Perth he moved to ABC television in Melbourne in the 1970s, hosting a weekly program, Sportsnight.

For ten years he hosted the weekly VFL (AFL) program The Winners and for eight years commentated test cricket for ABC television.

He joined the Seven Network when it regained broadcast rights to VFL in 1988. He commentated and reported on a range of sports, including Olympic Games, for Seven for the next 13 years.

He returned to ABC in 2000, as part of the Grandstand team, and stayed for fourteen years.

In 2014 he received an Order of Australia medal for services to sports broadcasting and later appeared on Fox Footy, hosting The Winners Rebooted.

Morphett had retired from full-time broadcasting last year but recently had been commentating AFL for commercial radio, including for the Macquarie network as recently as last week.

Source: ABC, ABC, Wikipedia, Sydney Morning Herald, 3AW





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Aug 22 2017

Countdown returns to ABC

ABC is bringing Countdown back to our screens — and back to its famous Sunday 6.00pm timeslot.

Thirty years after Molly Meldrum‘s bald-headed reveal at the Countdown Music And Video Awards marked an end to Countdown‘s 13-year run, the show is returning for a 13-week season.

Classic Countdown begins on 17 September, featuring footage that has been remastered and will be accompanied by commentaries by some of the artists to feature in the original performances.

There will be highlights of Meldrum’s Humdrum segment and the return of Countdown‘s long-time announcer Gavin Wood.

Each week will feature a different year in the life of Countdown, taking us back all the colour and music of the ’70s and ’80s.

Classic Countdown will also be accompanied by a CD release.

Classic Countdown. Starts Sunday 17 September, 6.00pm. ABC


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Aug 08 2017

Obituary: Ty Hardin

American actor Ty Hardin has died at the age of 87.

Born Orison Whipple Hungerford Jnr in New York City, Hardin starred in early American series such as Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip and Bronco. But the actor was also to have a leading role in Australia.

Hardin was cast in the role of charter boat captain Moss Andrews in the adventure series Riptide. His casting in the series was hoped to increase the show’s value on the international market.

Produced in colour for the Seven Network between 1967 and 1969, Riptide was filmed on location in Sydney and North Queensland. Hardin saw it as an opportunity to settle in Australia after leaving Hollywood and having worked in Europe for four years. “I went to Europe because I felt I would have more freedom to create and continue my acting career,” he told TV Times in 1969. “I have the same feeling in Australia.”

Riptide was a decent performer in the ratings but failed to gain positive critical reviews. Because of its high cost — reported to be $2 million over 26 episodes — and lack of international interest (although it was picked up in Germany, re-titled SOS Charterboot!), it was not renewed for a second series.

Hardin then returned to making movies overseas.

Riptide was barely seen again on Australian television until a relatively recent re-run as daytime filler on Seven’s new channel 7mate.

YouTube: Classic Australian TV

Source: Wikipedia, IMDB, Classic Australian Television. TV Times, 5 February 1969, 12 March 1969.


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Aug 03 2017

Laurie Oakes announces retirement

After more than 50 years in journalism — and most of those covering politics from the Canberra Press Gallery — Nine Network political editor Laurie Oakes has announced his retirement.

The 73-year-old, pinching the tagline from the famous 1972 federal election campaign, says “It’s time”.

His last day with Nine News will be 18 August, just a few days after his 74th birthday. His retirement ends a career that began back in 1965 as a state rounds reporter for the Daily Mirror newspaper in Sydney.

He was only 25 when he was appointed bureau chief in Canberra for Melbourne’s The Sun News-Pictorial newspaper (predecessor to the Herald Sun).

His television career started as a political commentator for Willesee At Seven. In 1979 he joined the Ten Network, where he broke one of his biggest stories — the leaked papers revealing the 1980 Federal Budget days before it was to be tabled in Parliament by then treasurer John Howard.

He left Ten after five years to join the Nine Network, starting there in time for its coverage of the 1984 federal election.

At Nine his weekly political interviews for current affairs program Sunday would lead the agenda for the week ahead.

Oakes’ journalistic accolades include three Walkley Awards and in 2011 he was inducted into the TV Week Logie Awards Hall of Fame.

Source: 9News, Platinum Speakers




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Aug 03 2017

Prime7 to launch 7Flix

Regional network Prime7 will be launching a local broadcast of the Seven Network‘s 7Flix channel.

The movies and entertainment channel will be broadcast across Prime7 in Northern NSW, Southern NSW, Regional Victoria, ACT and the Gold Coast from Sunday 3 September.

7Flix will be available on Channel 66, broadcasting in MPEG4 format.

The new channel will have no effect on the existing local broadcasts of Prime7, 7Two, 7mate, and iShopTV, although some re-scanning of sets may be required.

7Flix has been in operation on Seven in the capital cities since February last year.

Source: Prime7


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Jul 31 2017

Obituary: Les Murray

Former SBS sports presenter Les Murray has passed away at the age of 71.

Born in Hungary as László Ürge, he came with his family to Australia in the late 1950s as refugees fleeing the Russian occupation.

In the early 1970s he became a journalist and later commentated the Philips Soccer League for the 0-10 Network.

When SBS was establishing its television service in 1980, Murray was initially hired as a translator and subtitler of the channel’s Hungarian programs. Just days before the channel was to go to air, a chance meeting with an executive saw Murray chosen to co-host the live coverage of the Philips Soccer League grand final from Canberra.

From that point on he became the face of football for SBS, fronting the network’s ongoing football coverage including World Soccer, Toyota World Sports, On The Ball, The World Game and eight World Cups.

He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2006 for services to football in Australia.

Being a member of a rock group, The Rubber Band, in the 1970s, Murray revisited his musical interest on SBS with a performance on the 2010 special Eurovision A To Z. He sung the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest winner Nel blu dipinto di blu — better known as Volare.

He retired from SBS in 2014, the same year he was inducted into the Football Federation of Australia Hall Of Fame.

SBS managing director Michael Ebeid has paid tribute in a statement:  “No one better embodied what SBS represents than Les Murray. From humble refugee origins, he became one of Australia’s most recognised and loved sporting identities. Not just a football icon, but a great Australian story and an inspiration to many, to say that his contribution to SBS and to football was enormous, doesn’t do it justice. This is a devastating loss for all of us at SBS. Our thoughts are with his family and all who loved him.”

Tributes for Murray have also come from sports and media personalities as well as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten has suggested that Murray receive a state funeral.

Les Murray is survived by partner Maria and daughters Tania and Natalie.

Source: SBS, The Age, Wikipedia





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Jul 15 2017

Classic TV Guides: ABC’s Murder Story

In the early days of Australian television, locally-made drama was largely limited to one-off plays — mostly by ABC.

One such production was Murder Story, a Sydney-based production that was an adaptation of an English story, based on a real-life murder case.

Murder Story starred John Ewart as Jim Tanner, a 19-year-old intellectually-disabled man who is sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. His parents are played by Douglas Kelly and Neva Carr Glyn.

The production also starred Richard Meikle as Tanner’s accomplice, John Alden as the prison chaplain, and Don Crosby and Deryck Barnes (pictured above with Ewart) as prison officers.

Murder Story was broadcast live to air on ABN2, Sydney, in May 1958. It was “kinescoped” for broadcast in Melbourne — on ABV2 on Tuesday 15 July 1958.

Murder Story is among the latest additions to Classic TV Guides:



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Jul 13 2017

The short saga of Hotel Story

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By the end of 1976, the 0-10 Network‘s former flagship dramas Number 96 and The Box were coming to the end of their reign.

Number 96 producer Bill Harmon hoped to fill the inevitable gap that was to come with a string of spin-off projects featuring key members of the Number 96 cast.

None of the proposed concepts would come to fruition despite “pilot” episodes being incorporated among existing Number 96 storylines.

Crawford Productions, makers of The Box, had just launched The Sullivans for the Nine Network and sought to replace The Box for 0-10 with Hotel Story.

Billed as a sort of adults-only sex-and-sin, “Love Boat“-style drama, Hotel Story promised a regular cast of characters and a passing parade of guest roles checking in and out of the luxury inner-city hotel and providing their own self-contained dramas.

The series had scored some significant talent. Former Division 4 stars Terence Donovan and Frank Taylor were signed up, as was former Number 96 star Carmen Duncan, American actor Richard Lawson and former The Box star Patricia Stephenson.

Also among the cast were Christine Broadway (The Box and ATV0 weather girl), Rod McLennan, George Spartels, Elli Maclure, Max Meldrum, Claire Balmford, Claire Binney and Camilla Rountree.

June Salter, Carla Hoogeveen, Serge Lazareff  and Patsy King were also signed on for guest roles.

Production of the show’s pilot was completed towards the end of 1976, with interior scenes filmed at the studios of Melbourne’s ATV0 and the hotel exterior based around the then Old Melbourne Inn in North Melbourne.

Drama struck on the eve of production in May 1977, when a change to the show’s structure was made at the last minute. The emphasis on sex was out, and a more conservative approach to stories was in. The series was now being commissioned to run as two episodes a week for thirteen weeks, at a reported cost of $1 million to the 0-10 network.

The sudden change in approach left a number of actors that had been lined up for guest roles left out of a job. There had also been troubles with Actors Equity, largely based around the fee being paid to Lawson in comparison to the show’s Australian actors.

But more controversy was to come. Just weeks after Hotel Story was in regular production, the network axed the show — before a single episode had gone to air and with only seven of the planned 26 completed.

TV Times reported that while the actors had been working away in one studio, network executives were viewing the completed first episodes in a nearby boardroom — and did not like what they saw.

Even after the network pulled the pin it was 72 hours before the actors learned of the show’s fate. “We were the last to be told and so far can only go on what has been written in the press,” Terence Donovan told TV Times.

The network denied press reports that Graham Kennedy, the host of the top-rating game show Blankety Blanks who had been doubly hired as a programming consultant for the network, personally engineered the axe to be made to Hotel Story plus other network shows hosted by Ernie Sigley and Vi Greenhalf.

“Graham is on contract to us as a consultant and we value his opinion, but we don’t have him sitting around previewing our programs and deciding whether they will go on or not,” a spokesperson for ATV0 told TV Times.

Kennedy was, however, believed to have been in the boardroom with the executives viewing the preview episode of Hotel Story. His was not the casting vote but he was known to have offered feedback on the program.

Given the media attention around the show’s production woes, ATV0 saw an opportunity to cash in on the controversial axing of the project. It hurriedly rushed the first episode to air — assisted by newspaper advertisements featuring a collage of some of the press headlines regarding the show and the punchline, “You be the judge”. Some of the further completed episodes aired over the following weeks.

Although Crawfords had produced some successful titles for the 0-10 network in previous years such as Showcase, Matlock Police and The Box, it now wasn’t a good time for relations between the two parties. While Crawfords was checking its contracts for any financial compensation for 0-10 withdrawing its support for the series — and ATV0 even denying that a contract existed — the company had been proposing another drama series for the network.

A historical series titled The Wool Kings had been agreed in principle by TEN10 in Sydney and ATV0, although timing of the production was not agreed on between the two network partners.

Set in the 1880s, The Wool Kings was said to be centred around a grazier who moves into politics. However The Wool Kings was never to be.

If any upside was to be found from Hotel Story, it’s that guest star June Salter was to win a Sammy Award for Best Actress In A Single TV Performance later in the year.

The 0-10 Network did recover from Hotel Story with a new soapie, The Restless Years, that debuted in December 1977 and was produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation (makers of The Young Doctors).

At the risk of history repeating itself, Crawfords and 0-10’s successor the Ten Network actually dared to revisit the basic concept of Hotel Story years later but adapted to a tropical island setting — Holiday Island.

Holiday Island, similar to Hotel Story, featured regular cast storylines interspersed with the dramas of the tropical island resort’s visiting guests. The series, produced in 1981, was to be a TV disaster of another kind. Even though the show’s opening titles were filmed in tropical Queensland, the biggest blunder was filming a series set in the tropics in the cold of Melbourne during winter.

Viewers were also not convinced by some unusual casting plus attempts to make Melbourne’s gloomy winter landscape resemble a palm tree-laden tropical paradise.

Some dodgy green-screen effects, actors having to suck on ice blocks to stop their breath being visible in the cold air, and a fake tropical cyclone for dramatic effect didn’t help, either.

Holiday Island lasted around six months.

Source: TV Times, 4 June 1977, 25 June 1977, 9 July 1977. 16 July 1977. The Age, 5 July 1977.


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Jul 05 2017

Hunter: Australian TV’s James Bond

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Fifty years ago saw the debut of the Nine Network‘s new spy drama, Hunter.

Produced by Crawford Productions, Hunter‘s first episode aired on GTV9, Melbourne, on 5 July 1967 — with sister station TCN9, Sydney, following suit the next night. However, given the vagarities of Australian network programming at that time, the series actually made its debut in Adelaide, on NWS9 on 4 July.

The title role of COSMIC (Commonwealth Office of Security and Military Intelligence Co-ordination) secret agent John Hunter was played by Tony Ward, an actor who had also been working as a current affairs reporter. He had joined the Melbourne-based Hunter after working on Sydney current affairs shows Seven Days and Telescope.

Hunter also made a star of acting newcomer Gerard Kennedy, who played Kragg, a chief agent working for the fictitious Council for the Unification of the Communist World (CUCW). Kennedy went on to win a TV Week Logie Award for Best New Talent for his performance in Hunter.

Hunter‘s regular cast also included Nigel Lovell, Fernande Glyn and Ronald Morse.

Unlike Crawfords’ other series Homicide, which was set in Melbourne, Hunter came with a more impressive budget and worked from a much wider landscape and which gave it more sophisticated look. Although the series was based in Melbourne, production went out on location to Sydney, Queensland, central Australia and even to Singapore.

The series ran for 65 episodes, with Nine and Crawfords opting to pursue a new Melbourne crime drama, Division 4. Gerard Kennedy went on to the new show’s lead role, winning two TV Week Gold Logies for his popularity.

Ward, who had left Hunter before the end of its run, having been somewhat upstaged in profile by Kennedy, went on to dramas The Long Arm, Delta and Dynasty and would go back to current affairs reporting, working for Nine’s A Current Affair.

Source: Classic Australian TV, IMDB. TV Times, 5 July 1967. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1967. TV Week, 15 June 1968, 10 August 1968.




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